As an influx of new inmates fills up local jails, Orange County officials say they’ve been forced to cut a deal that lowers the county’s share of revenue from housing federal immigration detainees and gives more money to the city of Orange.
The agreement, approved unanimously Tuesday by the county Board of Supervisors, gives Orange twice as much of the county's share as it was getting before in exchange for allowing an extra 331 jail beds within existing buildings at the Theo Lacy jail, which is in the city.
The city’s cut of the so-called "beds for feds" deal with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE increased from 1.5 percent to 3 percent, which amounts to about $340,000 annually.
The extra beds in Theo Lacy are needed to accommodate an influx of prisoners to the county level from the state's prisoner realignment program under Assembly Bill 109. Both AB 109 and a recent judge's ruling regarding state prisoners have prompted concerns by local officials that county jails, already approaching capacity, will run out of space.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens explained to supervisors that the state-level issues are also putting the county’s ICE revenues at risk.
“My concern is that AB 109 will push out ICE” detainees, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens told supervisors this week when recommending the new agreement. “That will have a severe financial impact.”
Supervisors John Moorlach and Janet Nguyen questioned why the city felt it was entitled to the extra cash.
“I feel like we’re somehow being taken advantage of,” said Moorlach, adding that it reminded him of the city’s request for $500,000 in services when the original ICE deal was made.
The county’s ICE revenue “has actually decreased, but yet we’re [giving] more money to the city,” said Nguyen.
Hutchens replied that the city’s approval is required to expand the number of beds and accommodate the ICE detainees.The city’s role dates back to a 1995 court judgment and subsequent agreement that limited the number of Theo Lacy inmates to 2,986.
Supervisor Spitzer, meanwhile, considered it fair to increase Orange’s share.
“We’re giving the host city additional revenue to offset the impacts of what that means to their city,” said Spitzer. He cited county payments to Brea for expanding the Olinda Alpha Landfill.
Orange County’s jail space issues are another example of California’s ongoing problems with its overcrowded and expensive state prison system.
In 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to cut its prison population by more than 30,000, ruling that conditions were causing “needless suffering and death.”
Also looming over Tuesday’s discussion was another federal court order, issued last week, mandating that the state reduce its prison population by another 9,600 inmates this year.
The county’s ICE contract is a significant revenue source for the Sheriff’s Department and was approved in 2010 to help fill budget gaps and prevent layoffs.
Orange County expects to bring in nearly $34 million from the contract this fiscal year, with $27.1 million for the Sheriff’s Department and $6.6 million for the county Health Care Agency. ICE pays the county $94.15 per day to house each inmate, plus other expenses such as guard services and transportation.
Orange County houses a mix of immigration detainees, including those whose status is undecided; those who have completed prison or jail time after various convictions and are challenging deportation; and those who may be seeking asylum.
Theo Lacy houses high-security immigration detainees, and the Musick Facility near Irvine houses minimum-security detainees and women.
The sheriff also said she expects the county to receive fewer ICE detainees and therefore less revenue. The federal agency is turning to the privately-run Adelanto Detention Center in San Bernardino County amid fiscal belt-tightening brought on by federal budget cuts known as sequestration.
“What we do have is a very attractive facility” for ICE, the sheriff said. “We’re just more expensive than the private alternative.”
Given that the county expects to take cuts to its ICE revenues on two fronts, Supervisor Janet Nguyen asked whether the federal contract should simply be eliminated altogether.
“Is it better for us to just do away with the ICE contract at this point or at some time?” asked Nguyen. “Because it doesn’t seem financially beneficial.”
Hutchens stressed that the revenue is critical to her agency. “I will have a $30-million hole in my budget if we eliminate the ICE contract,”she replied.